December 19, 2010
50th anniversary of the consecration of the church building,
St. Columba, Marathon, Florida
Isaiah’s prophecy is given to people who felt grievously isolated, living in mortal fear, with enemies on their doorstep. The big enemies around here are more likely economic or natural disasters, but the fear is the same – who will help, and how will we survive? Isaiah confronts King Ahaz about his despair in the face of those enemies, after he’s lapsed back into his faithless funk. Isaiah says, well hope is coming anyway, whether you want to ask for it or not. He says, look here, by the time this young woman gives birth, and before her child is weaned, your enemies will be gone. And by the way, this child will be named God is with you.
How and where do we find signs of hope when we’re languishing in the dark? How do we discover God with us? The saint your name recalls gives a significant example. Columba was a monk in 6th century Ireland. He wanted a copy of a very beautiful book in another monastery, so he went and spent months making a copy. When he tried to take it home with him, the abbot who owned the original objected. Struggles over copyrights are not new! The two monasteries went to war over it, and a significant number of people were killed. Columba was supposed to be excommunicated, but they let him go into exile instead. After he woke up from his envy frenzy, he chose Scotland, and went to work there, hoping to convert as many as had been killed in the battle over his manuscript. He founded the monastery on the Isle of Iona – which is even today nurturing Christian community in both new and ancient ways. Hope, new ventures, islands, and the ability to tell the good news of Jesus in new lands and new forms – they are equally ancient and post-modern challenges.
God is continually doing new things, and they often come in unexpected forms or surprising places. When people are most discouraged, caught in the deep darkness of spiritual winter, where does God show up? As a babe born to a young peasant woman in a land under occupation. Columba finds hope in exile, after grievous violation of his vocation as a monk, and God brings abundant and lasting life after the carnage he caused in battle. Even the declaration of independence in the Conch Republic has some of that hopeful flavor – no imperious outsiders are going to squeeze the life and unique gifts out of the people who dwell here. St. Columba’s is breaking down the walls that divide peoples of the earth, building bridges to new lands that are also figuratively islands in significant distress: Honduras, Sudan, and Madagascar. Where did the hope for that bridge-building work come from?
The collect we prayed at the start of the service offers a guide for nurturing that hopeful space within us, for helping us move beyond the fear and limited vision that can keep us mired in darkness: “Purify our conscience by your daily visitation, that your son may find a mansion prepared for himself.” We tend to lose hope when our awareness gets too muddied and muddled, when we assume that there isn’t any better possibility, that we’re just stuck with the way things are. That’s what put Ahaz in a funk, and sent him off to convince one enemy to get rid of another. Columba got stuck in a narrowed view of the world when he began to see his beautiful book as the greatest prize of his life. He found hope when he began to remember a bigger vision for his life’s purpose. Mary seems to have dealt with her surprising news rather more easily than Joseph did. But then Joseph began to find hope in the midst of a dream, when the angel’s words began to expand his idea of the possible.
Those assumptions that keep us bound in darkness are the fruit of fear. When we stop clutching at those tattered, darkening wraiths, and open our hands, hearts, eyes, and ears to the new thing God is always doing in our midst, hope is born. The biggest obstacle to hope is certainty – certainty about what is, and certainty about what’s possible and what isn’t. Hope is rooted in God’s possibility, which is always bigger and stranger than we can imagine.
The miracle of Christmas is mostly about how surprising it is – it’s evidence of God doing things far beyond our imagining. When the night is darkest, God answers the dark with the light of the world, Emmanuel – God with us, to whisper hope into hearts that are desperate for a word, a sign that we are not alone, that we haven’t been abandoned to the chaos around us. Discovering those words and signs gets a bit easier with practice, which is why the collect reminds us about a daily visitation. Purifying our consciences is lofty language for paying attention to what we focus on – are we, like Columba, obsessed with some beautiful thing, or are we simply giving up, like Ahaz? Are we focused on listening and looking for those whispers and wisps of hope that are emerging all around us, all the time? Are we paying attention? That’s really what a cleaned-up consciousness is about, as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it, the ability to notice “the hand of God at work in the world about us.”
A eucharistic sensibility, the ability to give thanks, is one of the deep roots of hope. When we remember, and call to mind, what we’re grateful for, we’re nurturing that hopeful space, that expectant womb, where God can pitch a tent with us. That’s what happened with Mary – she was able to bless and give thanks for her surprising opportunity. Joseph’s evident sorrow about his circumstances was transformed into hope and possibility when he let go of his fear and began to give thanks for an unexpected future.
What are you most grateful for this year? What unwelcome surprises have become blessings? In these last days of Advent, spend a few minutes before you go to sleep and again as you awake in the morning, and notice. Keep watch through the day for more wisps of hope. Before you sleep, pray that your dreams may whisper hope in the ear of your heart. You will have prepared a mansion for the holy one, a tent for God in human flesh. A blessed and hopeful Advent, and may you long continue to be blessing and hope to a world bound in darkness and despair.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church